From Swindon to Swindon

Mary Beard

  • Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us by Ferdinand Mount
    Simon and Schuster, 438 pp, £20.00, June 2010, ISBN 978 1 84737 798 2

In February 1863, the newly founded Roman Bath Company opened its first premises in Jesus Lane, Cambridge. Behind an impressively classical façade, designed by Matthew Digby Wyatt, was a labyrinth of hot and cold rooms, and swimming pools, vaguely reflecting the layout and practice of an ancient Roman bath. Local worthies had invested considerable sums of money in the venture, in return for free entry. Others were to be admitted for a hefty fee: two shillings and sixpence (more than a day’s wages for an agricultural labourer) bought only the most basic, no-frills public bathing; the ‘large douche’ and the ‘running Sitz-bath’, the 19th-century version of a Jacuzzi, were to be enjoyed only for an extra shilling and sixpence. If you wanted a private session, you were charged three times as much.

It turned out to be a commercial disaster: the baths closed before the end of the year, with the company deep in debt and embroiled in litigation. Before long, Wyatt acquired the building, presumably in some kind of settlement for his fee, and it became the home of the Pitt Club (Cambridge’s equivalent of the Bullingdon). It is now a branch of Pizza Express: Wyatt’s marvellous façade survives intact, but the plunge pool (still with its columns and mirrors) has become the main dining-room.

Why it was such a failure is not clear. Over-enthusiasm combined with amateur financial planning were part of the problem (out of capital of less than £2000, they proposed to pay the managing director alone £350 a year). But Cambridge may in any case have been an unwise place in which to launch a venture of this kind. The locals, it’s been suggested, were never likely to be enticed away from bathing in the Cam (and certainly not if the alternative cost two and six). Ferdinand Mount, who discusses the 19th-century reinvention of Roman bathing in the first chapter of Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us, takes a different view. He puts the failure down to the fact that most of the academics were still in holy orders: ‘They were the last people you would expect to be converted to the cause of self-pampering.’

Whatever the reason for their failure, the history of the Cambridge baths is a nice case of the ambivalence of the modern world’s engagement with the ancient. It shows the combination of enthusiasm and lack of interest, learned reconstruction and total miscomprehension that underpins most attempts at the revival of antiquity. In fact, there are clear signs that many people at the time found the project not only ill-advised but faintly ridiculous. In January 1864, the unfortunate Mr Swan, who had provided the furniture for the baths but had never been paid, went to court to recover some of his money. His lawyer explained that his client had supplied sofas and settees for the different rooms in the establishment. When he actually spoke the names of the rooms – Tepidarium, Calidarium and Frigidarium, as in an ancient Roman bath – the courtroom burst into laughter.

At first sight, the Roman Bath Company is not a particularly powerful support for Mount’s headline thesis in Full Circle: that in recent decades the West has gone back to the ancient world. This is not, he insists, by a process of rediscovery or conscious revivalism, as in the Renaissance. Instead, in some ‘weird’ and ‘natural’ way we find ourselves reproducing the mindsets of the Greeks and Romans, from our passion for spas and for the body beautiful, to New Age cults or fashionable atheism. The various stories of 19th-century experiments in ancient bathing (Cambridge is not the only one) fit awkwardly with this argument. For a start, they are not modern. Indeed, as Mount’s memorable description of his visit to the surviving ‘Roman’ or (if you prefer) ‘Turkish’ baths in Swindon makes plain, these institutions now seem very quaintly Victorian. But they were also deliberate revivals, not ‘natural’ reproductions of antiquity’s mindset; and many of them failed almost as disastrously as the Cambridge experiment.

The truth is, however, that Mount is not closely wedded to the thesis blazoned in his subtitle. Throughout the book, he uses the ancient world as a useful sounding board and, every now and then, he plays with the idea that our own world shows striking similarities to that of the Greeks and Romans (not always very plausibly: I enjoyed his wry account of Roman triumphal processions, but I was not remotely convinced that they had any significant connection with Jade Goody and the modern cult of celebrity). As he makes clear in the introduction, however, Full Circle is not about antiquity in quite the way it’s cracked up to be. It is really a ‘mini-odyssey through modernity’, in which Mount acts as our ambivalent, engaging, slightly rambling, often hilarious guide. He is, as he puts it, a ‘bewildered stranger’ in the modern world, ‘a character left over from an earlier epoch who struggles to find his way around, an unwilling passenger on a time machine he never took a ticket for’. Yet, as he concedes, he is also supremely at home in the here and now, an insider who sees through the cant, the inconsistencies and the absurdity of the unspoken and unthought-out assumptions that define ‘modernity’. In this sense, the book is an apt sequel to his last book, Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes, a memoir of his early years (its main narrative ends in the early 1980s); Full Circle is about the world into which he grew up (and grew old) – a sort of cultural travelogue.

Some of the funniest passages are very much in the style of Cold Cream. Full Circle starts with the visit by the hapless Mount to the baths in Swindon. These were established for railway workers in the 1860s by Brunel’s right-hand man, Daniel Gooch, just down the road from Matthew Digby Wyatt’s vast railway sheds (a more lucrative commission than his Cambridge baths), and governed now – as they probably always were – by fierce rules about the wearing of properly concealing swimwear; modern imitation of the ancient Romans rarely embraces nude bathing. Here our ‘bewildered stranger’ immediately runs into trouble when he fails to spot that there are segregated changing rooms; had it not been for the slightly tart intervention of the only other male on the premises (an intervention Mount at first mistakes for a pick-up), he would have come face to face, minus pants and trousers, with an elderly lady: one of the few remaining regulars at the baths, who combines her visits, in a not very Victorian way, with a weekly shop at the local Tesco.

The book’s finale is a faux pas of a different sort, but in almost the same place; the full circle of the title is much more a journey from Swindon to Swindon than from the ancient world and back again. Here, at the end, Mount is on the trail of one of the book’s heroes, Richard Jefferies, Victorian polymath, nature writer, campaigner against the exploitation of agricultural labourers, fantasist and (in Mount’s semi-serious conceit) a 19th-century avatar of James Lovelock and his Gaia hypothesis. One of Jefferies’s favourite haunts was Liddington Hill (now within the official town boundary of Swindon), with its remains of an Iron Age hill-fort and famous clump of beech trees, Liddington Clump. Visiting Liddington, Mount is at his most whimsical and ironic. ‘It is inexplicably satisfying,’ he writes, ‘to be lolling more or less where Jefferies used to loll more than a century ago. I too am in Gaia’s arms. It feels almost like keeping an appointment.’ But he soon needs ‘to take a leak’, and chooses one of the beech trees for the purpose. When only halfway through, he notices that he is pissing on a plastic statuette of the Virgin Mary (‘I have got through life so far without pissing on the Virgin and I don’t want to start now’). Further exploration reveals all kinds of religious bric-à-brac and memorials (‘In Loving Memory of Pearl, 1923-2006’) on the trees round about. It turns out that Jefferies’s favourite spot for communing with nature has become a sacred grove of a fairly cheap, tacky, plastic kind. But cheap though it all is, as Mount reflects in his final sentence, ‘I still wish I hadn’t relieved myself in it.’ He has inadvertently blundered into a kind of continuity, and into a sense of the sacred, which even Jefferies, he guesses, would have enjoyed.

There is , however, more to Full Circle than these stories of hapless accidents and serendipitous finds. As Mount has often shown before, his stance as a patrician ‘Boho Tory’ can be an excellent place from which to dissect the shibboleths of contemporary culture, free as he is from many of the pieties of the liberal left. Here we find him standing up for a whole series of unorthodox causes, from Sir Clifford Chatterley (whose view of sex has turned out to be much more to our modern taste than Lawrence’s idea of ‘sex as sacrament’) to the potential pleasures of obesity (‘the consolations of booze and grub, which on the non-medical pages of your newspaper are rated rather highly’).

One memorable chapter is devoted to the designer atheism of the early 21st century, with a nice sideswipe at the pornography of David Attenborough’s nature programmes thrown in:‘Isn’t there something faintly repellent about a posse of cameramen training their sights on a python slowly swallowing an antelope or on a coot killing her surplus young – and then countless millions of us crowding round to watch the footage?’ So far as Mount’s own religious views are concerned, I finished the book with as much uncertainty as I began it. But his attack on Dawkins et al for their fundamentalist atheism and their apparent ignorance of the long history of the sceptical study of religion (right back to the pre-Socratic philosophers) is a powerful, sometimes devastating polemic. He even manages to squeeze a good quote out of Cormac Murphy O’Connor: ‘Have you ever met anyone,’ the cardinal asked, ‘who believes what Richard Dawkins does not believe in?’

For much of the time Mount relegates his Greek and Roman parallels to the background, but nagging questions remain. What exactly does antiquity have to do with all this? Why lead off a book on the modern world with claims about its similarities to the ancient? To be sure, Mount has a good lifetime’s grip on Greek and Roman culture, even if not always a perfect one – for better or worse, his views on the ancient pagan background to Christianity are more 1950s Eton than 2011 Cambridge. And he repeatedly uses the ancient world to prise apart the comfortable certainties of the modern. He is particularly sharp on our contemporary obsessions with sexual harassment and paedophilia, and their incongruities. ‘A 35-year-old lecturer,’ he observes, ‘puts his job at risk if he makes advances to a 21-year-old student, though he may make love to a 16-year-old shop assistant with impunity’ (one of the rare places where Mount shows his patrician colours – ‘shop assistant’?). And he cannot resist reminding his readers that the sexual culture of the most admired period of classical Greek culture was, as most scholars reconstruct it, grounded in institutionalised paedophilia: older men in erotic relationships with boys of an age that in 21st-century Britain would lead to arrest and imprisonment.

It remains very unclear, nonetheless, how far Mount admires the ancient Greeks and Romans. He has many apt ancient examples at his fingertips; he thinks through modern issues using ancient precedents; and he exposes many of the inconsistencies in our own approach to antiquity (the blind eye turned to paedophilia, for example). But this is emphatically not a book of the conventional ‘democracy goes back to the Greeks’ type, eulogising the classical heritage and judging the achievements of modernity according to some classical scale. Mount is much more sophisticated and slippery than that; and in the end I wasn’t much more certain where he stood on the positive value of Classics than on the positive value of God. At one point he praises the achievements of the free-thinking pre-Socratic philosophers as the ‘high-noon’ of open-mindedness: men such as the sixth-century Xenophanes, who satirised the anthropomorphic image of the gods, or Democritus who, a little later, first devised an atomic theory of matter. But when, in the following chapter, he sees those self-confident modern atheists as heirs to that ancient sceptical tradition (even if they are not aware of it themselves), one can’t help wondering quite how straightforward his admiration of the ancient freethinkers was.

Likewise, he can give (somewhat guarded) praise to the ancient tradition of dialogue and Socratic inquiry, while lambasting the domination of the dialogue form in modern culture, from the Today programme to psychoanalysis, and pleading for more sustained argument: more lectures, sermons, speeches and books, less chat, banter and conversation. And he seizes the opportunity to lament the dreadful transformation of the Reith Lectures on Radio 4 from the traditional hour-long broadcasts – ‘a sequence of oases for reflective and sustained thought’– to the ghastly format we have now, where the speaker has just 20 minutes before Sue Lawley steps in to moderate a banal ‘question and answer’ session. It is a dialogue form in which ‘the speaker’s first thesis, far from being highlighted and refined, tends to be blurred and flattened.’ Fair enough and, in my view, absolutely right. But where does it leave Mount’s admiration for at least some aspects of ancient debate and discussion? How should we distinguish good from bad dialogue?

Perhaps a degree of uncertainty is part of Mount’s point. And perhaps his at first sight awkward formulation that the modern world is ‘naturally’ returning to the mindset of the ancient is a useful attempt to reconfigure ‘our debt’ to antiquity. It is commonly said (and Mount at one point comes close to it) that the last couple of decades have shown a tremendous increase in popular fascination with Greece and Rome: think of movies like Gladiator and 300, as well as the success of Robert Harris’s Pompeii and his Cicero trilogy. It’s true that antiquity has recently been very good box-office, but preposterous to suggest that this is something new. Any history of film or fiction shows that there has been a passion for the ancient world for almost as long as there have been novels, and ever since the movies were invented. Bulwer Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii and Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur were two of the best sellers of the 19th century, and there was hardly a moment in the 20th century when ancient Rome was not in the cinema or on television screens: from The Robe to Up Pompeii, from Ben-Hur (the film) or The Sign of the Cross to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Yet it seems to be in the nature of our engagement with the classical past that each generation comes to believe that they are rediscovering the ancient world for themselves. And this is in part the implication of Full Circle, whether Mount quite realises it or not. Underlying his account is a sense that the history of antiquity in the modern world is a history of both remembering and forgetting as, over time, we choose to disown or embrace different aspects of the Greco-Roman world. The early 19th century generally decided to forget that glorious Athens was a democracy; we prefer to forget that it was a culture of pederasty. But more than that, in privileging our own brand of confrontation with the Classics, we choose also to forget all those earlier attempts to engage with antiquity over the last few hundred years or more – successes and failures alike. Nothing could be a better symbol of that than a hopeless experiment in reintroducing Roman bathing to Victorian Cambridge, in a building that is now a branch of Pizza Express, its earlier history long forgotten.